By Asim Saeed
Gilgit-Baltistan is situated in the Northern part of Pakistan. It covers an area of 72,971 square kilometers with an estimated population of 1.3 million that takes in four denominations of Islam: Shiites (39 percent), Sunnis (27 percent), Ismailis (18 percent) and Noorbakshis (16 percent) and at least 24 ethnic and linguistic groups. The region is located at the junction of China, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Indian held Kashmir and Pakistan, which make the region strategically important.
Historically, Gilgit-Baltistan has been part of the larger conflict ridden area of Jammu and Kashmir. The region of Jammu and Kashmir is a disputed territory between Pakistan and Hindustan. Being a disputed territory, the region has remained a prime catalyst for conflict between India and Pakistan since 1947.
The Kashmir problem is considered by many as the root cause of underdevelopment and heavy militarization of Pakistan in the region. In the wake of liberating Kashmir from Indian aggression, the Pakistani establishment has in the past patronized radical and extremist outfits in the regions adjoining Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. These forces, later on, strengthened themselves in other parts of the country, including Gilgit-Baltistan, and came back to bite the local population.
On Feb. 28, 2012, eighteen Shia pilgrims were shot to death on the Karakorum Highway (KKH) in the Kohistan district of KPK province while they were returning back from Iran. Another attack was carried out in Chilas on April 5 that left dead twenty people. In yet another bloody incident, 22 Shias and four Sunnis were targeted on the Babusar Pass. These very incidents have triggered sectarianism rifts at higher pace in the region, though sectarianism was presented in the region at nominal level.
Religiously motivated conflicts are not so old phenomenon in Gilgit-Baltistan. The triumph of the Islamic revolution of 1979 in Iran, Islamization policy of General Zia ul Haq in the 80s and the demographic changes of the 1987 further triggered sectarianism in Gilgit-Baltistan. The Shiite community of the country has always felt insecure about their lives under a dominant foe in the Sunni majority country. The Islamic revolution of a Shiite notion in the neighboring country motivated and empowered the Shiite community to denounce the Sunni oppression in the country. It is, therefore, the two denomination of Islam who are in head to head situation.
The dynamics of sectarianism changed with discourse of war against terrorism. Though the Pakistani government aligned with the international community in fighting this war, but the radical forces showed resistance, equating it as an imperialist agenda. The government banned radical groups, but such groups resurfaced with different identities and continued their actions.
In the current scenario, these radical outfits are engaged in different sectarian based violence. With a sizable Shiite population in Gilgit-Baltistan, the radical Sunni outfits consider the region as a stronghold of Shiites and their interests at large. Thus, the area is turning into a battleground for sectarian based conflicts and the recent killing of Shiites is a fresh wave of sectarian based conflict.
These conflicts have left a very tense situation in the region. The day to day business has come to a halt and traveling between Gilgit and Islamabad has become extremely dangerous for the local people. The provincial administration, security agencies and law and institutions responsible to maintain law and orde have so far failed to cope with the situation and the repeatedly sectarian violence is giving rise to the perception that the provincial government has miserably failed to bring the extremist outfits to the book.
Since sectarianism and radicalism are rampant in the region, every institution needs to plays a wider role in maintaining peace. The provincial government needs to take serious consideration in dealing with this menace. The role of ulema and civil society leaders in this respect are pivotal; these institutions can play their role for reconciliation and peace building between the Shia and Sunni communities.
A long term solution of cooperation between the two sects is required for defeating sectarianism and strengthening peaceful co-existence. The provincial government needs to reinforce additional legislation that authorizes law enforcers to persecute crimes related to sectarianism and terrorism. There is a high need for reforms to be introduced within the law enforcement agencies and to enhance their capacity. Because the problem of sectarianism and terrorism is a nascent for the region, if not dealt early, it could spread like a cancer.
Asim Saeed, hailing from Gilgit-Baltistan, is a student of social sciences at SZABIST. He has a passion to write about economics, social issues, politics and culture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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